“The whole crowd are a complete ring: the Chief of Police, the Chief of Detectives, the Mayor and the City Attorney.” Thus spake special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, the gang-busting lawyer and politician, when he was trying to extradite Lucky Luciano from his protected redoubt in Bill Clinton’s home town of Hot Springs, Ark., back in 1936. After the assassination of fellow gangster Dutch Schultz in the fall of 1935, Charlie Lucky had fled to Bubbles, where he sought the protection of Owney Madden, the English-born Irish gangster who had recently moved his base of operations from Manhattan to Hot Springs.
The charge was pimping, but everyone knew that was just a placeholder for all the other crimes Luciano had committed. As the last man standing after the Castellammarese War of 1930-31, the mob-sanctioned takedown of the Dutchman and Madden’s simultaneous relocation to Hot Springs, the Sicilian-born Salvatore Lucania had survived various attempts on his life (hence his nickname, “Lucky”) to become the mob’s kingpin — and Dewey’s principal target. So when Dewey turned up the heat in New York, Luciano headed down to Madden’s protective embrace in the delightfully corrupt spa burg in the Ouachitas.
Hot Springs was ideally located, just 55 miles or so from the state capital at Little Rock, which was close enough with which to do business and far away so as not to be nosy. When Madden needed something done, he would simply order the governor to meet him somewhere in the woods between the two cities, orders would be given, money would exchange hands, and business would proceed at usual.
Because what Madden quickly learned at the beginning of his 30-year exile in Bubbles was that organized crime was great– but it was even better and more efficient when the government was part of the racket. The town already had a corrupt mayor in place in the person of Leo McLaughlin, but Madden and his associates expanded the ring to eventually include not only all the local officials, but the governor of Arkansas and at least one of the state’s U.S. senators, “crimebusting” John McClellan, first elected to the House in 1935 (the year Madden arrived) and to the Senate in 1943, where he served until his death in 1977. During the 1963 “Valachi” hearings into big-city crime, McClellan was forced to call Madden before his committee, but carefully protected him from questioning and quickly sent him back to Arkansas.
Thus Dewey’s complaint cited above — everybody in Bubbles was a crook, including the police chief (who lived next door to Madden), the head detective, McLaughlin (surely the model for the cheerfully powerless mayor in Miller’s Crossing) and the D.A. They were all on Madden’s payroll. Needless to say, they were all Democrats.
Which brings us to today — and to the terrible threat the modern Democratic Party poses to legitimate, constitutional government in our country. I often refer to it as a criminal organization masquerading as a political party, and it is; its sordid history is indisputable. Were it not for its uncanny ability to make gullible voters believe it is the exact opposite of what it really is, and for its media wing to continue to misrepresent it as willfully and happily as ever Pravda did for the CPUSSR, it would long ago have been run out of town on a rail.
This is not to hold any brief for the Republican Party. With its characteristic soft-headedness and its perpetually round heels when it comes to “bipartisanship,” the GOP is only marginally less dangerous. Indeed, as the current example of Marco Rubio demonstrates, the Right is ever ready to fall in love at the first guy who makes Goo-Goo eyes at them and whispers sweet nothings about the Constitution in their ear — and then betrays them at the first opportunity. As I tweeted recently, we all owe Rubio a debt of gratitude for revealing his true colors as a special-interest candidate before we nominated him for president.
But the Democrats have taken municipal corruption — their specialty from the time of the Tweed Ring and the rise of Tammany Hall in the mid-19th century, right up to the 1930s — to a whole new level. For what they learned as the Machine took over one big city after another — not just New York, but Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans and others — was that once they’d seized the big population centers (which is where the votes were), it was but a short hop to taking control of a whole state. Which they did. When I was researching my novel about Madden, And All the Saints, I came upon his ledger book for the early ’30s; written in a kind of gangster code, it lists all his income and expenditures around the time of the Castellammarese War, among them regular financial transactions between him and the governor of New Jersey, listed as “Trenton.” Upon his arrival in Arkansas, Owney Madden took over not only Hot Springs but the whole state. His lawyer, the late Q. Byrum Hurst, told me that he would summon whomever was occupying the seat to a meeting in the woods somewhere between Bubbles and Little Rock. There a suitcase full of cash would change hands, and the governor would return to the state capital, instructions in hand; he even gave one of them a new Cadillac — a gift duly acknowledged in a letter from the grateful gent after his term in office had expired.
And so the states fell — Arkanas, Illinois, Jersey, Nevada (which Benny Siegel turned into a wholly owned criminal enterprise). Some, like New York and Florida, partially resisted. The upstate Republicans fought a successful rear-guard action against Tammany, achieving a mutually beneficial modus vivendi until relatively recently, when the state senate finally saw the writing on the wall and threw in with the Democrats to create Andrew Cuomo’s dream one-party state. Florida, to which Meyer Lanksy retired after no other country on earth would take him in, including Israel, never quite succumbed, even though the Mob’s presence there in the form of racetracks was huge.
The genius of the two most recent Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, has been to take systemic corruption to the ultimate level — all the way to the top of the federal government. Anybody who’d spent even half a moment considering where Clinton and Obama hailed from — Madden’s Arkansas and the Combine’s Illinois — could have seen what was coming a continent away. A young Bill Clinton hung out regularly at Madden’s Southern Club on Central Avenue in Hot Springs, imbibing the atmosphere of political, er, horse-trading and taking it with him first to the Arkansas state house and then to the White House.
But no, the national media couldn’t be bothered with even the most cursory investigation into their pasts and past connections, preferring to present both candidate ex nihilo as it were, the Man from Hope (itself basically a lie) and the Man from Hope and Change — both, conveniently, with a Compelling Personal Narrative carefully scrubbed of anything that didn’t Fit the Narrative. Biographies of Clinton, for example, make almost no mention of Madden, except in his sanitized guise as a “retired gangster” who’d left Manhattan upon the death of Dutch Schultz and spent the next thirty years doing good works. As for Obama’s past…
(It’s worth noting that JFK also had close ties to Madden, who had been one of Joe Kennedy’s partners in the booze-running business during Prohibition — something that drove Bobby Kennedy’s animus against Madden and organized crime in general. Indeed, since JFK, the only two Democrats not tied directly to organized crime and municipal corruption have been LBJ — who had plenty of other ethical issues — and Jimmy Carter, who remains pretty much sui generis among American presidents.)
And so here we are, with the Obama administration beset by scandals both foreign and domestic, most of them entirely predictable. Where Obama was the night of the Benghazi debacle is the subject of speculation, most of it highly unflattering to the current occupant of the Oval Office given his well-documented Choom Gang past. But it’s the domestic outrages — especially the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups in the run-up to the last election (thus explaining why the Tea Party, which had stunned and frightened the progressives in 2010, was such a non-factor in ’12) — that really sting. The clear message that Obama is sending — whether through force of his famous glower or “jokes” about using the IRS to target folks who displease him — is that his enemies are also enemies of the state.
Like the old-time racketeers, the Democrats can now concern-troll the Right — “nice little business you got there; shame if anything happened to it.” Far from chastening them, the recent revelations are actually a good thing, pour encourager les autres, as Voltaire observed. On the streets of New York during the bad old days, fruit stands got wasted, newsstands burned down, taxi companies that didn’t play ball went out of business — and some folks got icepicks in the backs of their skulls. The rest kept their eyes lowered and their mouths shut; Madden, for example, once shot and killed a man named Willie Henshaw on a New York City streetcar in front of multiple witnesses and nobody saw nuttin’.
On a hot July day in 1931, Mad Dog Coll gunned down a kid in Italian Harlem while trying to take out Joey Rao, who worked for Coll’s mortal enemy, Dutch Schultz. Led by Mayor Jimmy Walker (himself spectacularly corrupt), an outraged citizenry finally demanded action against the criminals on the streets, which eventually led to Dewey’s appointment — although Coll got his from Madden and Schultz seven months later when he was annihilated by a burst of tommygun lead while on the phone with Madden in a call box at a drug store on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street. Things snowballed from there as the gangsters killed each other off (Schultz, shot by Charles Workman), were deported (Luciano, who died in Naples) or fried in Old Sparky (Louis Lepke). By the time the war came along, the fever had broken, and New Yorkers no longer lived in fear of gangland.
Today’s racketeers wouldn’t sully their hands with gunpowder or bloody pickaxes, but they’re a great deal more dangerous. The question is: who’s the next Tom Dewey and where do we find him? Or are those days gone for good?